Founder Collective, a seed-stage fund formed 11 years ago in Cambridge, Ma., has closed its newest fund with $85 million.
Earlier today, we talked with the firm’s general partners — Eric Paley, David Frankel, Micah Rosenbloom — to learn more about it. Among our first questions: whether the three are themselves the largest investors in the new vehicle, as was the case with the firm’s third fund, which closed with $75 million in capital commitments four years ago. (The three have long prided themselves on their ability to tell founders who they take the firm’s capital that they truly are taking the investors’ money.)
We also talked exits, geography, and investing through the coronavirus, a time when a lot of personal investors are being more cautious with their dollars.
TC: Eric, you wrote a seed check to Uber and I spied you on the Midas list this year. Still, it’s a scary time to be investing one’s capital aggressively. Are you and David and Micah again the biggest investors in this new fund?
EP: The three of us were the largest investors in [our third fund] and we’re significantly bigger investors in Fund IV. While we’re fortunate to have some of the best LPs in the world, we believe that being our own largest investor allows us to make decisions that better align with our founders. We also hope it sends a signal to founders that we’re honest brokers. When we were running our startups, it frustrated us when VCs would add a punitive clause to a term sheet citing “fiduciary responsibilities” to their LPs as the justification. We’re principals and stewards of our capital, not agents of LPs.
TC: How many investors are now involved in the day-to-day of the firm and how has this changed at all in the past years?
DF: We have ten people full-time with offices in Soho in New York and Harvard Square in Cambridge. There are three partners and a principal on the investment team. We also have a Founder Partner program with some of the best entrepreneurs covering a variety of geographies and domains. [Editor’s note: some of these include Raj DeDatta of Bloomreach, Jack Groetzinger of SeatGeek, Andy Palmer of Tamr, Zach Klein of DIY, James Tamplin of Firebase, Nadia Boujarwah of Dia&Co, Elliot Cohen of PillPack and Noah Glass of Olo.
Caterina [Fake], who was a Founder Partner with us for 10 years, recently founded Yes.vc, and our first principal, Gaurav Jain, started Afore, a pre-seed VC.
TC: What are some of the most recent exits for the firm?
DF: Over the last couple of years, we’ve been fortunate to see Uber go public and PillPack join Amazon. CoverWallet and Hotel Tonight were another pair of outstanding outcomes. We were fortune to have backed ten companies that have either exited or been valued at more than $1 billion in our first two funds, but we’re also proud of $100 million M&A events. They often go unreported, but because of our fund size, they make a material impact to us – and, more importantly, the founders.
Have seed-stage check sizes changed? I imagine they were getting bigger and now I’d guess they might get smaller again?
EP: From the beginning of Founder Collective, we’ve done two kinds of investing, $1 million to $2 million checks, where we lead and take a board seat, and around $400,000 investments, where we participate. We’ve seen the average valuations rise over the last five years, but we’ve tried to stay disciplined.
MR: So far in the COVID era, check sizes aren’t that different. It’s been more of a binary situation where startups that are deemed as “on-trend” can still command healthy valuations. The companies that are pre-market, or in an out-of-favor category that might have gotten funded in February are having a hard time getting funded. But we try not to be influenced by thematic trends.
DF: One pleasant surprise has been how quickly most of our companies have responded to the “new normal.” Some have reopened rounds to put a little more capital on the balance sheet, while others have found strategic investors to help tide them over. By and large, they’re acting responsibly.
TC: Remind me of where Founder Collective invests — does it have a focus mostly on the Northeast?
MR: We invest primarily in four geographies: New York, Boston, the Bay Area, and Southern California. That said, we’ve invested in startups as far afield as Nigeria, South Korea, and Israel, and genuinely unusual and fun places like Wisconsin, Winnipeg, and Boise.
EP: The reality is that startup geography is changing. For example, the most valuable software startup in the Western world to launch after Facebook is Shopify, which currently has a $90 billion market cap and is based in Ottawa. It would be foolhardy for investors not to broaden their view on where great startups can be built.
That said, there are powerful network effects around startup centers. It’s absolutely possible to build a multi-billion dollar tech business anywhere; it’s orders of magnitude easier when there’s a deep talent pool to hire from, local mentors who have seen scale before, and a broad ecosystem of knowledgeable service providers that can provide guidance.
DF: Also, while we invest globally, we feel the East Coast is an undervalued startup hub. Over the past 20 years, Boston has had more billion-dollar exits than any Western city aside from San Francisco, and New York has produced multiple $10 billion-plus startups in spaces as diverse as consumer hardware, SaaS, dev tools, and craft marketplaces.
TC: How has the pandemic changed your outlook for the next year?
EP: Over the years, we’ve written a lot about capital efficiency for entrepreneurs and even made warning labels that we send to founders alerting them to the dangers of too much money, too soon. Historically, we’ve pushed this message because capital was overabundant, and it damaged startups. The principles of capital efficiency are even more critical in a tight capital market. We’ll be increasingly focused on helping founders understand efficient entrepreneurship and how to build models that are tuned to scale without burning capital.
We’ll also put a premium on founders who have demonstrated the flexibility to operate amid unprecedented levels of uncertainty. In this environment, companies need to focus on their customers’ needs as they are now and not fixate on their pre-existing strategy. For instance, our portfolio company Formlabs sells 3D printers mostly to engineers and designers. After they started printing a novel nasal swab design for COVID tests, hospitals became an important new customer category. The world is changing rapidly, and founders need to keep pace.
TC: What are a few of the firm’s most recent bets and what do they say about Founder Collective’s investing style?
MR: A few recent examples are TrueWork [which sells HR-focused software-as-a-service), Trusted Health [a nursing marketplace], Lovevery [which makes learning toys] and ULesson [which makes consumer education software for African students].
On the surface, it’s a diverse group of companies, but the common thread is a founding team that is all over it. The founders were obsessed with the problems they were solving, had spent meaningful time in these industries, and proved out a lot before seeking funding. There’s no way we can be experts in all those fields, but we do think we know how to spot the founders who are.
TC: Presumably, you’ve already sorted your startups into these red, yellow, and green groups that VCs like to talk about. What are happening to the startups in the red group? Are you helping them to unwind their businesses?
MR: It’s still so early, it’s hard to say what the ultimate impact will be, and the longer it goes, the worse it will likely get. So far, COVID was the nail in the coffin for a few of our startups, and we’ve tried to help the founders find soft landings for the teams and assets. Some of our distance-learning companies and our health-oriented companies have benefited due to the growing need for their products.
Most of our startups are somewhere in the middle. We try to help entrepreneurs on a case-by-case basis, sometimes that means organizing peer discussion groups about cash management in a time of crisis. Other times, it takes the form of making introductions to potential acquirers. When possible, we help to catalyze new rounds of funding.
TC: What’s one new area of interest for founder collective and why?
DF: One of our core beliefs is that the best startups are built by founders approaching weird and wonderful spaces.We’ve backed ad tech for the flooring industry, IoT-based offshore oyster farming robots, crypto, cologne, doggy DNA tests, data management tools. We’re proudly anti-thematic, and historically, that’s led to good outcomes.